Compliance and creativity in language teaching

When I create an I-20 form for a prospective student, the SEVIS system has me choose “Language Training” as the student’s area of study. I’m always intrigued by this choice of words. Why is learning English considered ‘training’ and not ‘education?’ Are other disciplines – math, the sciences, English literature and foreign languages – considered to be training?

I suppose this rankles because ‘training’ doesn’t sound as elevated or noble as ‘education.’ The word training connotes the learning of standard routines for predictable situations. In preparing people to administer CPR, make a burger in a fast-food restaurant, or respond to a customer service call, a future situation is anticipated, its predictable components are identified, and a set of routines, to be followed step-by-step, is developed. Complying with the prescribed routine is considered the most effective way of behaving in the anticipated situation.

Historically, language teaching methodology adopted such a compliance or training approach. The grammar-translation method inculcated grammar rules and vocabulary with the aim of producing accurate translations of sentences. The Berlitz schools relied on heavily scripted lessons from which teachers were not to deviate. Audiolingualism employed drills designed to ingrain mental and muscle habits, and functional language teaching provided scripts for situations such as ‘asking for help’ or ‘at the post office.’  Perhaps the notion of language training is derived from this history of methods that emphasized rules, drills, and situations imagined to be predictable.

This changed with communicative language teaching, which combined a constructivist approach – knowledge regarded as being built or constructed in the learner, not received from outside – with the goal of teaching students to use their language to solve problems in less predictable situations. In information gap tasks, students were not given specific language, but were required to draw on their language resources creatively to find missing information in communication with classmates. In the communicative heyday, many teachers and textbooks de-emphasized grammar teaching and error correction, to the disappointment of many of their students.

Communicative language teaching ushered in a new age of creativity in language teaching. Students gave presentations, took part in classroom discussions, wrote original essays and stories, and engaged in pair- and group work, all of which was unpredictable language-wise. The emphasis in pronunciation teaching was less on ‘sounding like a native’ and more on students making themselves comprehensible with whatever phonological features they brought to English from their own language.

These days we have moved past language teaching methods into an eclectic era in which teachers use whatever approaches and  techniques they feel are best suited to the subject matter and their students. It is liberating not to be straitjacketed into a teaching method, but freedom of choice means that teachers need to make principled decisions, and this includes how much they will adopt a training approach, emphasizing rules, routines, and scripted language, as opposed to a more educational one, having students solve problems using their language resources.

Naturally, both approaches are needed, as they likely are in most academic disciplines. Particularly in early language learning, training is vital, as students need language rules and vocabulary. Practice dialogues, controlled grammar exercises, dictation, drills, and choral readings are all helpful at this stage. Later, these methods, aimed at compliance, can give way to a more creative approach, in which students use their second language resources to navigate unexpected situations and in doing so increase their proficiency. Language teaching that gets stuck in a training mode as students progress may help them prepare for tests and complete predictable exercises, but is unlikely to prepare them for using language in the real world. By the same token, an approach that leaves too much open, providing too little language structure, may not help students progress.

The compliance-creativity/training-education dichotomy (or is it a spectrum?) can be helpful in analyzing one’s own lesson plan and teaching, and is one useful framework for observing and analyzing a language class. It is helpful in thinking through students’ needs and deciding on materials and teaching components in curriculum design. Training has an important place in language teaching – but language teaching shouldn’t be reduced to ‘language training.’